October 16, 2021

Payload issue delays SpaceX’s next Falcon Heavy launch to early 2022


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File photo of the most recent Falcon Heavy launch in June 2019. Credit: SpaceX

The next flight of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, previously scheduled for this month, has been pushed back to early 2022 after more delays caused by its U.S. military payload, a Space Force spokesperson said.

The launch of the Space Force’s USSF-44 mission was set for Oct. 9, but officials have delayed the mission “to accommodate payload readiness,” a spokesperson for Space Systems Command said in a response to questions from Spaceflight Now.

The Space Force did not release a new launch date for the USSF-44 mission, but the spokesperson said the launch is now targeted for early 2022, nearly three years since the most recent Falcon Heavy launch in June 2019.

The Falcon Heavy will deliver multiple military payloads to a high-altitude geosynchronous orbit on the USSF-44 mission. The rocket’s upper stage will fire several times to place the satellites into position more than 22,000 miles above the equator.

The upper stage flight profile will include a coast lasting more than five hours between burns, making the USSF-44 mission one of SpaceX’s most demanding launches yet.

One of the spacecraft on the USSF-44 launch is a microsatellite named TETRA 1 built by Millennium Space Systems, a subsidiary of Boeing headquartered in El Segundo, California. Military officials said in a statement the TETRA 1 satellite was created to “prototype missions and tactics, techniques and procedures in and around geosynchronous Earth orbit.”

The military has not disclosed information about the other satellite, or satellites, on the USSF-44 mission. Payload delays previously pushed back the USSF-44 launch from July to October.

SpaceX will use three newly-manufactured boosters for the USSF-44 mission. All of the boosters were delivered to the Florida launch base earlier this year.

The challenging launch profile will leave no leftover propellant to recover the center core of the Falcon Heavy, according to the Space Force. The core stage will be expended on the launch, while the rocket’s two side boosters will be recovered on two SpaceX drone ships positioned downrange east of Cape Canaveral.

Despite the long gap between Falcon Heavy flights, next year is shaping up to be a busy year for the rocket, with four launches of the heavy-lifter scheduled from Florida’s Space Coast between January and August.

The Space Systems Command spokesperson said the USSF-52 mission, the next national security launch on a Falcon Heavy after USSF-44, is scheduled for the second quarter of 2022. The next commercial Falcon Heavy launch is also scheduled for the second quarter of 2022, carrying a Viasat 3 broadband communications satellite toward geostationary orbit.

Next August, NASA’s robotic Psyche spacecraft is scheduled to launch aboard a Falcon Heavy rocket on a mission to explore a metallic asteroid orbiting the sun between Mars and Jupiter.

Another mission in late 2022, designated USSF-67, may also use a Falcon Heavy rocket, but the Space Force hasn’t confirmed if it will launch on a Falcon Heavy or on SpaceX’s single-stick Falcon 9 rocket.

All Falcon Heavy flights from Florida blast off from pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, the same complex used by Apollo lunar missions, space shuttles, and SpaceX’s crew missions.

File photo of the most recent Falcon Heavy launch in 2019. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX has at least 10 confirmed Falcon Heavy launches in its backlog, including missions to dispatch NASA’s Europa Clipper spacecraft toward Jupiter, and to send the first two elements of the planned Gateway mini-space station toward the moon, both in 2024.

NASA’s VIPER moon rover is also slated to launch on a Falcon Heavy in late 2023, and a NOAA weather satellite is assigned to launch on a Falcon Heavy in 2024.

NASA has also contracted SpaceX for two Falcon Heavy flights to boost Dragon XL cargo missions to the Gateway station later in the 2020s.

The Falcon Heavy is made up of three modified Falcon 9 first stage boosters connected together in a triple-core configuration. The rocket’s 27 Merlin main engines produce some 5.1 million pounds of thrust at liftoff, more than any other currently operational rocket.

The Falcon Heavy will get more U.S. military launch contracts in the coming years.

The Space Force last year announced multibillion-dollar contracts to fly the military’s most critical national security payloads on United Launch Alliance Vulcan Centaur rockets and SpaceX Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launchers through 2027.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.


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